November 2008
Improved pasture management, a healthier fertiliser policy, and some new technology to provide animal traceability from source to slaughter have led to better farm performance and improved profits for David and Suzanne Quantock.

The property is at Mt Somers. Its 760ha of gently sloping land. The business is based around finishing beef cattle but also incorporates red deer, elk, and grazing dairy heifers.

This season the Quantocks will finish at least 2500 beef cattle as well as running 1000 dairy grazers and 600 store cattle well up on last season. Marking time in the wings is their herd of 200 red deer hinds along with 30 elk velvet bulls used as terminal sires.

"Our analyses show that the deer are very profitable, but our main focus at present is on fine tuning the cattle finishing operation, says David.

Their regime represents a dramatic change from a few years ago when sheep and cropping were the dominant profit centres.

We realised that our system had got too complicated, and when we analysed the profitability of the various classes of sheep, deer and cattle we could see that cattle would do best here and would be simpler to manage, says David.

Three years ago we sold all our sheep and reduced the numbers of deer, and began to focus on supplying finished beef cattle to a meat company.

David also adds that it is a 4th generation business and that some of the change was brought on by the need to buy Davids parents out and continue to make gains against large debt.

There are two distinct phases to the Quantocks annual cattle programme. In August as soon grass as begins to come away, they start buying and getting a feel for the market, preferring cattle that can be finished before Christmas and the summer dry. Generally by October they are fully stocked but this season the pasture is a little slow coming away and hes still busy purchasing stock.

Finished cattle are sent for slaughter as soon as the optimum profit point is reached liveweight of 580 - 600kg.

Generally we de-stock in December, and when the feed comes away in late February or March we start buying stock for finishing by May, but retain the flexibility to quit in April or June as the weather, markets or profit levels dictate, says David.

We buy cattle in the 400 - 450 kg range, but we are prepared to buy other stock if we are on track for a feed surplus and there is a profit in them. We also graze dairy cattle from November to February to top pastures.

Focusing on profit is made possible through analyses that allow predictions of feed demand and availability and consequent profit from different classes of stock.

There are four keys to the success of their beef operation. One is maintaining the pasture covers within the 1600-2500 kgDM/ha range.

Being able to get the right stock at the right time is also critical, so the second key to success has been developing a good relationship with a reliable stock agent who understands what their objectives are.

Recording cattle growth rates is the third key. David has recently installed a Prattley 3-way Auto-Drafter with an Allflex tag reader. Cattle are weighed and given an EID tag as soon as they set hoof on the property, and split into weight range groups. They are reweighed at least monthly, and weekly for those that are nearing slaughter weight.

The system is now smart enough to cope with stroppy new arrivals without weight or tag reading errors.

My 13-year old son and I have drafted 103 cattle in 38 minutes. Being able to weigh stock quickly and accurately means we can quit them at the weight that maximises returns, says David.

The unit is also a tool that helps us determine what combination of breed, blood line, and pasture type gives the best profit per kilo of dry matter eaten, and the effects of weather and changes in management on profitability.

The fourth key to success is fertiliser. After many years of comparing soluble fertilisers with mixes based on lime and trace elements, David came to the firm conclusion that pasture quality and stock health were both much better on the unconventional mixes.

Two years ago he changed entirely to soil biology friendly dressings of RPR and trace elements, and a summer dressing with a mix of lime, magnesium and other minerals to stimulate clover growth. Since then Brix levels in the pastures have at least doubled, reflecting the changes and also better pasture cover management.

We have realised over the past year that the visual appearance of grass is a poor guide to its feed value. Stock do better on pastures that have more traditional species, and on more mature pasture even though it may not look as good as lush new grass, says David.

We suspect that the better stock performance is directly related to Brix level, which measures nutrient density, sugars, proteins and minerals, and reflects a healthier soil biology.

While the emphasis on fertiliser and pasture management is aimed at improving soil and pasture quality and production, the focus on involving the right people and the right technology is aimed at procuring the best performing stock.

To achieve high growth rates we need to offer the cattle at least three times the maintenance feed level, so we dont want to push them hard to tidy up rank feed in summer. Thats what we use the dairy grazers for, and they seem to do well probably because of the higher Brix.

Data from the weight recording system combined with financial analyses take the guesswork out of farming for the Quantocks, giving them the management information and confidence they need to make good business decisions. As a consequence their net trading profit has more than doubled in the past two years.

The driving force behind their success comes from a clear vision of what they want for their future.

We know why we are in business, and we have clear family and business goals. We initially thought that we were just a grass factory, but now we realise we are actually a source of healthy food for the world, says David.

Seeing ourselves as food producers opens up many more opportunities for sustainable farming and sustainable profits.